It has been a long time since I have written – almost a year. Writing used to be my safest place and brought me great joy. However, those of you who have followed my story for several years know that my writing has trailed off to nearly non-existent. Why?
I have been trying to figure this out for some time. All I knew was that when I started law school five years ago, something shifted and my writing has not been the same since. This week, I came to a realization for the first time and here I am, trying to make sense of it through prose. Please be patient with me.
When I moved to Chicago for law school, I just graduated from Biola University, a small Christian college in southern California, where I excelled academically, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. I had also just finished several years of competing in RCC indoor percussion and various world-class drum corps, fine-tuning my mallet percussion skills dozens of hours a week, and feeling absolute confidence that I could play my part well…really well. I was so confident in who I was, the God-given gifts I was given, and my place in this world.
It was so easy for me to write during this time. I felt alive and sitting down to write was freeing. Creativity came easily and words came naturally. But then came law school.
My junior year of undergrad, in an only-God way, my passion for social justice and advocating for people to be free from sexual exploitation and human trafficking (and honestly my admiration for International Justice Mission) lead me to law school. I never wanted to be an attorney. I wanted to be an investigative journalist. I wanted to write about injustices around the world, tell important stories, and propose solutions.
However, after a life-changing trip to the Dominican Republic for a book project my junior year of college, I felt a strong pull to go to law school to advocate for these vulnerable populations. I tried to ignore the voice because it was terrifying. Law school?! It was so far outside of my comfort zone that I knew this small voice was not from me and despite every bone in my body wanting to run away, I listened.
I said “Yes,” and pretty soon I was googling “how to go to law school,” taking the LSAT, and applying for admission to law schools all over the country. I knew it was going to be hard. I knew it was going to be life-changing in many respects, but I was not prepared or the depth of this adjustment or the trauma that would be associated.
Law school was very difficult for me, not just intellectually but also physically and emotionally. I was still dealing with thyroid cancer the first two of the three years, which drained me physically. But, more drastically, law school instilled in me some immense anxiety – like short-of-breath, often-on-the-verge-of-a-panic-attack kind of anxiety – mixed with perpetual self-doubt, constant lack of self-worth, and deep feelings of misplacement.
I was SO far outside of my familiarity, learning about things I had never heard of, surrounded by brilliant, competitive minds, and every day felt like a struggle just to survive. How could this be where I was meant to be?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in public interest law / legal aid (for a nonprofit working with low-income individuals, providing free legal assistance). So, from the start, I got plugged into this community and I was all-in. Honestly, it was a survival tactic. It was my desperate attempt to find like-minded social justice-y, do good-y people who I could relate to more easily.
It was this community that reminded me that the end goal, being a legal aid attorney, could be worth the pain and anxiety of those three years (and let’s not even talk about the Bar exam). So, I continued and made it through those difficult years. But, not without long-term consequences.
When you’re a legal aid attorney, there is a lot of focus on being trauma-informed in your practice. All our clients have varying levels of trauma when they come to you for free legal assistance. You hear their stories all-day, every day, as you try to provide them legal assistance they desperately need.
After a while, horrific stories of abuse / neglect/ exploitation land on your ear less drastically and you find yourself numb. I work with low income clients with disabilities who have been sexually abused or trafficked. My every day involves stories of trauma from clients who have experienced unimaginable pain. I expect it and most days I leave the office thinking I’m leaving the work there, that I’ve learned not to internalize the stories, and that I understand the impact of these stories on my mental health.
I have been to many CLEs (continuing legal education courses) on secondary /vicarious trauma, etc. and self-care, and how exposure to the trauma of others on a regularly basis can adversely impact your mental health if you don’t focus on self-care simultaneously. I have heard all kinds of examples and been given numerous tools for recognizing and responding to this experience.
Until this week, my ego prevented me from admitting that maybe I was not recognizing or responding to my personal experience. For the first time, I saw an example that indicated a “lack of creativity” as a sign of secondary / vicarious trauma.
That struck a nerve.
Is this why my writing / playing music / desire to complete crafts or projects has been stifled these few years? It makes so much sense now.
When I come home from work, I find myself too emotionally exhausted to think about writing or creating in any other medium. I’ve carried guilt with this for some time.
“You’re just lazy.”
“Just. Do. It.”
But I find that I can’t physically or emotionally muster up the strength to create or produce anything else. I’m just tired. Physically. Emotionally. Completely wiped.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat down to write and just stared at the screen with complete exhaustion. The thought of trying to put together a cohesive thought was daunting. So, I closed my laptop and went about my business.
I was sharing some of this with Andrew the other day and he kindly asked what we could do to make this better. I’m truly not sure. I’m still a young attorney and I know over time I will find more space to recognize when I need to focus on self-care and to learn better ways to not internalize so much of the daily trauma I hear in the office each day.
But, I told him, this revelation was absolutely liberating to me, because I was beginning to think I lost all my creative juices when I entered law school and then the legal profession. I felt lazy and became frustrated with my inability to create more regularly or on-command.
Maybe (just maybe) my words, my creativity, my voice have just been buried temporarily in my personal trauma related to cancer + law school and the secondary / vicarious trauma that has compounded on this experience through my first couple years as a legal aid attorney.
So friends, here I am, wearing my heart on my sleeve. Typing furiously on the airplane en route to speak at a conference. But for the first time in a long time, I had the itch to write. I felt that frantic nudge to pull out my computer and just start typing and I haven’t had that nudge in years.
I count this a success and a little bit of self-awareness goes a long way I think? And so does a little grace for myself and kinder self-talk.
I know this won’t be resolved overnight. I know I won’t be back at full creative capacity for some time, but for the first time in a long time, I don’t think all is lost. I think the creativity is still there, just buried, and I’ll give myself more compassion while trying to uncover it.